Returning home: What we know about the reintegration of deployed service members into their families and communities

by Lydia I. Marek, Ph.D., LMFT, W. Glenn Hollingsworth, M.A., Carissa D'Aniello, M.A., Kathleen O'Rourke, M.A., Donna-Jean P. Brock, M.A., Lyn Moore, M.A., John L. Butler VI, M.S., Jing Zhang, M.S., Bradford Wiles, M.A.
NCFR Report

According to the Department of Defense, as of June 30, 2011, 203,400 military personnel, including reserve and National Guard members, were currently on deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. As nearly one half of all military personnel are parents, and with almost two million children having a military parent, there are a growing number of families who are experiencing or have experienced the strain of wartime deployments. These deployments are characterized by lengthy and multiple separations that put stress on family functioning, structure, and cohesion. In addition, the effects of these deployments, with their related difficulties, can spill over into domains outside of the home and affect individual and social functioning. Military personnel, program providers, and helping professionals are becoming more interested in and concerned about the stage of deployment known as reintegration or postdeployment. Understanding this stage is especially important at this time, given the current drawdown of troops. With the number of returning service members increasing, they and their families must now reassemble their lives after each member has experienced profound change.

Reintegration is the stage of the deployment cycle (predeployment, deployment, postde-ployment or reintegration) characterized by the service member's reentry into his or her daily life as experienced prior to deployment, or into a new civilian life, including the domains of work, family, and personal experiences. Most often, this stage is another predeployment, given the operational tempo of the last 10 years; meaning that most service members are already preparing for another deployment immediately upon return to their families. Despite much literature suggesting that the reintegration stage lasts several months, this stage can actually persist for months to years depending on the individual service member, his or her family, and the fuller context of the service member's life. Notably, although many service members, spouses, and children or youth demonstrate great resilience during what can be a smooth and joyful reintegration process, many individuals and families have difficulties with this stage of deployment.

Reintegration can be a turbulent time for the family, as members must re-form into a functioning system. Some studies suggest that relationship stress and negative family function may reach a peak between 4 to 9 months after the service member's return. One of the greatest challenges for these families appears to be renegotiating family roles as the service member encounters the often-unexpected difficulty of fitting into a home routine that has likely changed a great deal since his or her departure. Typically, over the course of one or more deployments, the at-home parent and children (especially adolescents who are more capable of providing greater instrumental support within the home) assume new responsibilities such that when the service member returns, there may be expectations among family members that things will either return to how they were prior to deployment or that the structure that emerged during deployment will remain. Lack of appropriate expectations and communication around this restructuring is a frequent source of conflict and stress for reintegrating families.

Those involved with military families must understand the reintegration process and its effects on the service member and his or her family, because this multifaceted period of time has been found to have a profound impact on multiple life domains. With the current drawdown of troops in Iraq, this reintegration process is even more important for researchers and practitioners to understand so that critical supports for returning service members and their families can be developed, implemented, and evaluated. This article provides a brief overview of main issues in the process of reintegration for service members, spouses, children, and the family unit, and concludes with future research needs.

The Experience of Reintegration

Service Members

During the service member's reentry to the home, he or she faces physical, psychological (e.g., symptoms related to an experience of trauma), and social challenges. Adler, Zamorski, and Britt (2011) suggested a model of service member transition in which the effect of deployment-related variables (deployment experiences, anticipation of homecoming, and meaningfulness) on domains of postdeployment transition (physical, emotional, and social) are moderated by the service member's decompression, or the psychological transition from functioning in a high-stress and pressure-filled environment to one of less stress and pressure (in other words, the psychological processes involved in going from battlefield to bedroom), his or her personal narrative around military experiences, unit variables, and the anticipation of redeployment. These transition domains can then directly affect the quality of one's health, work, relationships, and an overall ability to enjoy life. Studies have identified specific challenges facing reintegrating service members as follows:

  1. Feeling like they no longer fit into their families due to the family changes that occurred in their absence, including the normative development and maturation of children and the increased competence of the spouse who has taken over many of the tasks and roles that were previously completed by the service member.
  2. A feeling of separation for returning service members from the culture to which they return. Several reasons were cited such as lack of respect from civilians (including a loss of status and self-esteem), the belief that they hold themselves to a higher standard than civilians, and the complexity of "normal" life.
  3. Difficulties related to interpersonal interactions (including those with their partners and children) due to low frustration tolerance, poor anger management, difficulties in coping and self-regulation, hypervigi-lance, and social withdrawal. Many of these could be characterized as post-traumatic stress symptoms and may also include increased alcohol use and heightened symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Spouses of Service Members

Pincus, House, Christensen, and Adler (2001) postulated that postdeployment is arguably the most important stage for the service member and spouse as they often must reduce expectations, take time to become reacquainted with one another, and build communication. Reactions to the return of the deployed service member can vary wildly; some spouses report not having to adjust at all during reintegration while others report that their deployed partner is no longer the same person they knew previously, making for a rather difficult adjustment. Despite the potential for positive effects of reintegration (e.g., greater appreciation for one's family, personal growth), spouses may experience a loss of the independence gained during the service member's deployment and the loss of the social support networks formed during that time. Chandra and colleagues (2011) found the following challenges expressed by spouses related to reintegration:

  1. Fitting the deployed spouse back into the home routine;
  2. Rebalancing child responsibilities;
  3. Getting to know the deployed spouse again;
  4. Worrying about the next deployment;
  5. Dealing with the deployed spouse's mood changes; and
  6. Deciding who to turn to for advice.

Some mitigating factors that are associated with the reintegration process include frequency of contact during deployment, overall adjustment to deployment, use of military support programs, and age of children. Negative communications with the service member, negative beliefs in the value of the service member's mission, and the service member's exposure to combat were significant predictors of wives' stress during postdeployment. Making sense of the deployment process in general and making appropriate attributions of the military partner's behavior in particular (e.g., if trauma symptoms are present) are valuable in reducing reintegration stress.

Military Children/Youth

Reintegration can be a very difficult time for children and youth. While proud of their deployed parent, many report feelings of loss, loneliness, and worry for the safety of their military parent during deployment and frequently must take on more responsibilities in the home. The child or youth may eagerly anticipate reconnecting with the service member parent who returns. Nevertheless, both parent and child may have undergone significant changes during deployment, thus heightening the unpredictability of this time for everyone.

A variety of factors, such as a child's stage of development (emotional, cognitive, or physical), the at-home caregiver's satisfaction with military and community support, the individual adjustment and emotional development of the parents, and the degree of marital stability can all affect a child's adjustment to reunion and reintegration. Studies have found that children and youth expressed difficulty relating to the reintegrating parent due to the physical, mental, and emotional changes that resulted from deployment. Children reportedly expected increased parental attention during reintegration and often did not understand why they did not receive it. Youth adjustment may be moderated by age, gender, and cumulative length of deployment, such that older girls who experienced longer parental deployments were at greater risk for reintegration difficulties. Boys, on the other hand, may have more difficulty adjusting to reduced autonomy and increased structure when the deployed parent returns home.

In spite of their challenges, many children demonstrate remarkable resilience during deployment and reintegration. Chandra and colleagues (2011) reported that when concerns did arise, they tended to focus on:

  1. Adjusting to fit the deployed parent back into the home routine;
  2. Worrying about the next deployment;
  3. Dealing with the service member's mood changes;
  4. Worrying about how parents are getting along;
  5. Becoming reacquainted with the service member; and
  6. Deciding who to turn to for support and advice.

Military Families

Family adjustment depends on a variety of factors, and although a majority of families make the appropriate adaptations during postdeployment and demonstrate a great degree of resilience, many report difficulties. The family dynamics created during deployment are often challenged during reintegration. Mechanisms of risk for these families, identified by Saltzman and colleagues (2011), include:

  1. An incomplete understanding of the impact of deployment and combat operational stress;
  2. Inaccurate developmental expectations;
  3. Impaired family communication;
  4. Impaired parenting practices;
  5. Impaired family organization; and
  6. A lack of a guiding belief system (i.e., values or beliefs that enable a family to make sense of and find meaning in their circumstances or a difficult situation).

Pincus and colleagues (2011) also suggest that there are a number of adaptations that can serve as protective factors and ease the family into the reintegration process. These include:

  1. Being able to have role flexibility with the ability to perform multiple roles;
  2. Using active coping skills;
  3. Maintaining contact through e-mail and letter writing during deployment;
  4. Having all family members maintain realistic expectations during this reintegration process;
  5. Developing a shared family narrative and collaborative meaning-making;
  6. Open communication in the family; and
  7. Effective parental leadership.

Next Steps

Our current knowledge of reintegration experiences, how they unfold over time, and their consequences is for the most part based on research using largely clinical samples focusing on service member experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact on the marital relationship and parenting. Such a focus obscures the fact that even in the absence of formal mental health diagnoses for service members, difficulties can and do arise, thus warranting further research with nonclinical samples. There is a need for a greater balance between strengths-based or family resilience approaches and those emphasizing psychopathology and its transmission. Other limits of reintegration research thus far include the following:

  1. Many service members have been surveyed about their experiences of reintegration years after returning from deployment (rather than during or immediately following postdeployment);
  2. Measures used have reported limited psychometric information;
  3. Most current research is cross-sectional with some notable exceptions;
  4. Data are seldom gathered from multiple informants; and
  5. There is insufficient attention to theory, thereby limiting the application and building of family stress and resilience research and understanding.

Addressing these deficits would enrich our knowledge of the process of reintegration and help highlight the stressors and resilience factors in military families. More research that is family-focused and longitudinal, using nonclinical samples and measures that have demonstrated psychometrics, is needed. This understanding could then lead to the development, implementation, and evaluation of effective support programs and services targeted at each of these groups during specific time periods. Strong and effective collaboration between the military and civilian community would be needed for such a research agenda and is essential if we are to assist in building the resiliency of military families during the potentially difficult and multidimensional process of reintegration.

Contact Lydia I. Marek, Ph.D. at [email protected]
Photo credit: Ft Hood Soldier returns home by Jonathan D. Blundell

  • Adler, A. B., Zamorski, M., & Britt, T. W. (2011). The psychology of transition: Adapting to home after deployment. In Adler, A. B., Bliese, P. D., & Castro, C. A. (eds.), Deployment psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Chandra, A., Lara-Cinisomo, S., Jaycox, L. H., Tanielian, T., Han, B., Burns, R. M., & Ruder, T. (2011). Views from the homefront: The experiences of youth and spouses from military families. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
  • Pincus, S. H., House, R., Christenson, J., & Adler, L. E. (2001). The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective. U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, 2, 21-29.
  • Saltzman, W. R., Lester, P., Beardslee, W. R., Layne, C. M., Woodward, K., & Nash, W. P. (2011). Mechanisms of risk and resilience in military families: Theoretical and empirical basis of a family-focused resilience enhancement program. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 14, 213-230. doi:10.1007/s10567-011-0096-1